Why the Anti-War Movement Did Not Achieve Its End

Although it is too soon to provide an in-depth analysis of the failure of the anti-war movement to achieve its end of preventing the war in Iraq, it seems that some preliminary remarks may be made. It should be noted from the outset that I have not referred to the worldwide protest movement as a pacifist movement. The reasons for this will be made clear in a moment, but it should be clear from this that I do not understand the anti-war protests to be the same as pacifist protests against the war. (And this will give a hint as to what I take to be the tenor of the failure.) It should also be clear that my criticisms are of the anti-war movement, and not of pacifism itself. Again, the reason will be made clear momentarily.

It seems to me that the anti-war movement not only failed to achieve its end of preventing war in Iraq, it also failed in persuading public opinion in the United States. Even prior to the war’s commencement, a strong majority, roughly two-thirds, of the American public, according to the polls, supported President Bush and the planned military conflict in Iraq. Not surprisingly, that support has grown to almost three-fourths of the American public now that the war has begun, though this need not be an indication of agreement with the war so much as support for the troops, a quintessential American trait.

Why was the anti-war movement so evidently a failure? The media clearly and regularly presented the anti-war protests at home and abroad. Estimates of protestors in the millions worldwide were declared as growing evidence of public sentiment in opposition to war. Well-known celebrities lent their public personae and financial resources to the movement and its publicity. The protestors had the organization, especially in the all-important venue of grassroots movements, the airwaves, the money, strong political backing. Why did the movement fail? It seems to me there are two important reasons.

1. The lack of a cohesive message.

It is ironic that with such a vast amount of organization, publicity, platform, political backing, and money, that the largest failure of the anti-war movement was that of establishing a consistent and cohesive message. For reasons which are not clear to me, the protestors took what I believe could have been a persuasive pacificst platform, and bifurcated their message along the lines of anti-Americanism and anti-Bushism.

Clearly, anti-Americanism is not going to play well among a majority of the U. S. population, however well it may have worked around the world. Cries of “Empire” fell largely on deaf ears, as an American public gave little to no heed to allegations of American hegemony. Americans largely believed the administration’s message that our country was not out to annex Iraq for our own purposes. The clear and evil atrocities perpetrated by the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein called for redress, even if many Americans were uneasy about America leading the way in that calling to account. For many Americans, however much they may have been persuaded, or not, of terrorist ties to Iraq, they viewed Iraq as a security issue, even if not the most important one, and the U. N. as too weak to enforce its own mandates. There was little but conspiracy theories presented as evidence of Amerian “Empire.” The anti-war movement clearly did not persuade the American public on this matter.

With President Bush remaining at significant favorable polling numbers in the U. S., it struck me as ineffective that the anti-war protestors would focus their public arguments on attacking the President. Attributions of lust for oil as motivating the President to war with Iraq were met with about as much seriousness as were the cries of “Empire.” With Iraqi oil production forming about five percent of U. S. imports, and with all the attendant losses associated with a military operation, the American public intuitively knew that this was not about oil. By and large, the American public accepted that what Bush claimed as his motives (disarmament of Iraq and the achieving of U. S. policy for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power set before Bush came to office), and gave little to no credence to the “oil motivation” attributed to him for starting this war.

It is my conviction that had the anti-war movement stuck to its pacifist critique of war that their message would have been both more cohesive and more persuasive. Instead, the protests were seen by the public at large as more about America and/or President Bush than they were about arguments in favor of peace.

2. The elitism of moral outrage.

This second failure is perhaps the most intuitively felt and therefore the most pervasive of reactions against the anti-war movement. The moral highroad and moral superiority are not the same thing. I personally witnessed a local protestor face the camera of one of the local news programs and say, once the war had started, “Do you feel good about yourself now, America?” The disgust on his face and in his tone was only too obvious. But instead of communicating a disgust at the war, this protestor communicated his disgust for America at large. Clearly he appeared to feel himself to be morally superior to roughly sixty-percent (now somewhere near mid-seventy percent) of the U. S. population.

Few Americans, ingrained as is our concept of absolute equality in the popular consciousness (however little it may be realized in actual fact), react positively to this sense of moral superiority. The anti-war protestors took on a strident and loveless tone that relegated all their opposition to the status of ethical Neanderthalism. Is it any wonder the American public wrote these protestors off. Jerry Falwell anyone?

American memories are not very long, as can be witnessed in every election cycle. But it seemed that there was just enough remembrance of the relative silence of the anti-war movement in the face of President Clinton’s military action against Kosovo (unpopular worldwide, without U. N. backing, and with a smaller international coalition), and more particularly of his unilateral and opportunistic bombing of Iraq during his Monica Lewisky scandal, to give the lie to the supposition that the anti-war protestors were operating from some higher moral ground. And especially when these protesters took their apparent moral elitism and, instead of the dignity of civil disobedience, resorted to little more than the hooliganism of stopping traffic and disrupting pro-war rallies . . . well, they appeared less morally exemplary as strident and hypocritical.

It’s sad, really, that the pacifist movement got coopted by the anti-war, anti-America, anti-Bush protests. Perhaps the pacifists hoped that strength of numbers would bolster their message in a milieu that seemed to them hell-bent on military conflict, death and destruction. But in the end, numerical augmentation proved to be little more than pragmatic dilution. Ultimately, when it was far too late, not even the moral authority of the Pope could turn the protests to the significant pacifist debate.

It does not appear likely, with Michael Moore’s sophomoric propagandistic rant on the Oscar platform, that the ant-war movement will learn from the significant contributions pacifist argument could have made to this debate. But if the pacifists want to exert the significant influence that they have throughout the history of our nation, they will have to distance themselves from self-righteousness, anti-Americanism, and partisn politics. It is my hope that they will. I may have been one who could have been persuaded by their cause. At least I was open to it. And that’s saying something, coming from this just war proponent.